December 22, 2016

METAIRIE, La. (AP) Clustered on a shelf in Tim Hightower's locker at New Orleans Saints headquarters this week were three footballs - symbols of how far he's come since a 2011 knee injury that sidelined him for more than three seasons.

Two of the footballs had been carried into the end zone by the 30-year-old Hightower last Sunday in Arizona, the place where his NFL career began as a fifth-round draft choice out of Richmond in 2008. The other had been given to him by coach Sean Payton in the locker room after New Orleans' 48-41 triumph over the Cardinals.

''That's the place where it really started for me,'' Hightower said. ''It was pretty cool for it to come back around full circle. It was a reminder to me of why I fought through the different obstacles and what happens when you continued to stay focused and stay driven.''

Hightower has rushed for 490 yards and three touchdowns this season as a backup to Mark Ingram. He also has caught a 50-yard scoring pass this season.

If he can have a couple more solid performances to close the season, starting this Sunday against Tampa Bay, he won't be that far off in terms of production from 2010 - the year before his career-threatening injury - when he gained 736 yards on 153 carries and scored five TDs.

Hightower doesn't want to say how much longer he thinks his NFL playing career might last, but he talks like a running back still in his prime. Indeed, while age 30 often marks the twilight or a running back's career, Hightower wasn't getting hit at all from around age 25 to 28, when he was out of the game and rehabilitating his knee.

''My knee's completely healthy. My body's completely healthy. I feel like I'm still getting better,'' Hightower said. ''I still feel like I'm growing in this game, the knowledge of this game, understanding the game and understanding my role.''

Part of his role now apparently involves leadership. He gave a motivational speech to the Saints in Arizona the Saturday night before their victory there. This week, teammates voted Hightower the recipient of the Saints' Ed Block Courage Award, an award that each NFL team gives to a player seen as a source of inspiration and an example of courage and sportsmanship.

''There's a lot of different accolades on the field, you know, statistically and stuff like that,'' Hightower said. ''But to have something like that where ... guys have recognized the path you've taken, they respect the kind of guy you've been and the example that you've set, it means a lot.

''There were plenty of times where I didn't even know if I had it in me to keep going,'' Hightower said. ''I'd wake up going, `I don't even know how I'm going to make it through this day.' You go through yet another surgery, yet another setback, you rely on the goals you wrote down, you rely on the people in your corner.''

Payton said he liked Hightower's tough running style and had heard a lot of good things about him when he was coming into the league. So when he heard Hightower was trying to make a comeback in 2015, Payton figured he would give him a chance to compete for a roster spot.

Hightower was on and off the roster early in the 2015 regular season, but when other Saints running backs started to get hurt, Hightower became a fixture and finished last season strong, earning another contract with New Orleans in 2016.

Payton said Hightower's contributions on and off the field have exceeded expectations.

''What we know now was not obvious to us or something that we were aware of with all the makeup and toughness,'' Payton said. ''He is just a special guy.''

With all praise coming from coaches and teammates alike, the week got even better for Hightower when his wife, Rikki, sent him a long, congratulatory text.

''She's been with me through the ups and the downs. Where most people have just seen smiles, she's seen the tears. She's seen where I'm throwing things across the room in frustration,'' Hightower said. ''She's seen me waking up in the (operating) room. She's seen looking at the MRIs in the doctor's office.''

''To have her send me a text and having her respect and her love, it meant a lot,'' Hightower said. ''This week has been awesome. ... Hopefully it sets the tone for the rest of my career.''

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